The Pittsburgh Pirates are not getting the Daniel Hudson they thought they were going to get when they signed him to a two-year deal. His dogged use of his failing four-seam fastball may be to blame.
The Pittsburgh Pirates knew that they had to fortify their bullpen to guard against an inexperienced starting rotation.
The club knew it had a fireballer in Felipe Rivero, a known commodity in Tony Watson, a multi inning option in Juan Nicasio and an abundance of left-handers comprising their bullpen. Still, they needed one more quality relief arm for balance.
The team decided that Daniel Hudson would be that guy.
Hudson had rebounded from not one, but two, Tommy John surgeries to a degree that defied many’s expectations. In the process, he converted into a full-time relief pitcher who exuded durability. A combined 127.2 innings between 2015-2016 squashed any doubts about his ability as a late-inning reliever. It did not hurt that he had solid – if somewhat unspectacular – peripherals.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans thought that they had a potential bargain on their hands when the club signed Hudston to a two-year, $11 million dollar contact.
In his first 18 appearances, Hudson has been anything but. He has struggled mightily at times and has created more question marks in a Pirates bullpen that seemed loaded with answers as the season began.
To make matters even worse, his fastball is to blame.
A Bad Mix
In trying to dissect what is holding Hudson back from his previous levels of effectiveness, the first thing that is seen is his whopping use of the four-seam fastball at a 70.44 percent rate.
On its own merit, that type of usage is not unusual for a reliever, and it is especially not startling in the context of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen. Over the past several years, the team has employed a renewed emphasis on putting relievers with fastball velocities above league average in place. For a detailed look at this philosophy, I cannot recommend Travis Sawchik’s January piece on Fangraphs enough.
Entering 2017, Hudson fit the profile. In the two years prior, Hudson had averaged 96-97 mph on his four-seam. After seeing the pitch get lit up – to the tune of a 174 wRC+ – in 2015, Hudson increased its usage by five percent for 2016 and seemed to have it under control. Hitters tagged the four-seam for a wRC+ of just 106 in 2016 to go along with a decreased line drive rate.
In 2017, Hudson’s fastball has…well, take a look:
At what point do the Pittsburgh Pirates throttle down Hudson’s usage of the straight heat? With his average velocity having dropped nearly 2 mph over the past two seasons, it would be safe to say that that ‘now’ is the answer.
Of course, velocity isn’t everything when it comes to fastballs.
You are Now Entering The
No Spin Sort-of Spin Zone
Earlier this year, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello wrote a fantastic piece regarding the effects that spin rate has on different pitches, the four-seam fastball among them.
You should do yourself the favor to read the entire piece, but for the purposes of this conversation, we will note that Hudson has averaged a spin rate of 2385 rpm on his entire slate of four-seam fastballs. The MLB average for 2016 was 2286 rpm. As Petriello notes, different spin rates mean different things for different pitchers. In Hudson’s case, his fastball is an enigma. His total average rate is above baseball’s average, but not by much. Nevetheless, he does a fair job of creating swing and miss with the pitch. First, another relevant note from Peteriello:
Because the ball stays up and hitters are more likely to miss it or make contact with the bottom of the ball, the high-spin fastballs are positively correlated with swinging strikes.
Sporting, again, just a slightly above average spin rate on his fastball, Hudson nevertheless gets batters to swing and miss at a 16.7 percent rate thus far in 2017. That is a fantastic number, and should provide us with more faith than it actually does.
Why is that? Well, it is chiefly due to the fact that many of Hudson’s fastballs look absolutely flat to the naked eye.
Here is a walk-off hit from Los Angeles Dodger reserve Austin Barnes.
Notice how flat this 96 mph fastball looked. This was the first pitch of an at-bat to Barnes, and he was able to find a gap in Dodger Stadium to plate the runner from first.
This was a pitch that had a 2496 rpm spin rate, showing that a high spin fastball is not an automatic whiff generator. Any pitch of any type that flattens out like that is likely to end up causing some damage.
That pitch is very similar to this one, a home run to Anthony Rizzo on a fastball with a 2434 rpm spin rate:
Again, we see a pitch that seemed to square itself up in a perfect spot for a low-ball hitter such as Rizzo.
Spin rate is still somewhat of a mysterious factor in pitching. It is hard for a pitcher to consciously control, if not impossible. But we can see with Hudson’s fastball that it is but one factor
So, what can the Pittsburgh Pirates do?
For one, they can re-think their philosophy in favoring fastballs from their relievers. Through the season’s first month, Pittsburgh Pirates relievers threw 64.1 percent fastballs against the MLB rate of 56.8 percent. As we said at the top, they have the horses to take that approach. However, Hudson’s situation is eerily reminiscent of what the Pirates went through upon first bringing Mark Melancon into the fold.
In 2012, Melancon threw his four seamer about 31 percent of the time. In 2013 – his first year with the Pittsburgh – the pitch was nearly dropped entirely in favor of his cut fastball. This obviously worked for Mark the Shark as many Pittsburgh Pirates fans can remember.
The roadblock to taking a similar approach with Hudson – aside from the team’s stubbornness to stick with what is not working – is that his two other offerings are not very effective.
His changeup is his second most frequently thrown pitch at 17.33 percent. It, too, seems to have lost its luster if we take a look at selected peripherals over the past three seasons:
Hudson Changeup Peripherals
note: O-Swing: Percentage of swings by batters at pitches out of zone; SwStr – Swinging Strike Percentage; wRC+ – Weighted Runs Created-Plus
His slider brings up the rear at 12.33 percent. We could show you a complete breakdown of that pitch, but we can put it in summation by telling you that hitters are making contact with it at a 76.1 percent rate.
The Pittsburgh Pirates simply are not getting what they thought in Daniel Hudson right now. With weak secondary pitches as well, the team will have to do everything they can to get his four-seam fastball right if he has any shot of providing consistent value to the club.